Posts Tagged ‘contemplation’

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Greenbelt Festival – August Bank Holiday Weekend, 2010

August 31, 2010
Welcome to Greenbelt 2010

  

I have just returned from an inspiring and really encouraging weekend at this year’s Greenbelt festival at Cheltenham racecourse. It’s been for me a truly wonderful time, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I love Greenbelt because there’s the chance for just a few days of the year to be able to soak up the eclectic carnival atmosphere of thousands and thousands of people from  many different traditions and viewpoints gathering together for a celebration of art, music, poetry, politics and God in one large event. The shere variety of people from dribbling and chortling babies to children, to adolescents and young adults, to the worldly worn middle-aged and the open-minded mature and elderly – the sections of society represented at Greenbelt don’t fit the picture of normal church congregations – here is a much more varied and encouragingly multicoloured spectrum of people.   

Beauty in arts, craft and good conversation

Secondly, there’s the great opportunity to meet new people and make new friends or to catch up with family, old friends and colleagues in a uniquely open-minded, open-hearted, open spirited and celebratory environment. I have met numerous people this year – particular leaders who made a lastingly good impression on you at a time of growth and exploration in your life and faith; good friends you once worked closely  with on experimental projects who you have since lost contact with after you and they have moved to different parts of the country. There have also been those serendipitous meetings with people who were complete strangers, but over the course of the weekend and several coffees, wine and beer in disposable paper cups and some great conversations have become like soul friends and kindred spirits. As a Christian, an event like Greenbelt is so stimulating because there are so many possibilities – opportunities for gift, grace, humour, heart-felt emotion, tears and laughter. 

Colourful flags decorate the Cheltenham race course grandstand

A rainbow coloured celebration - people from all walks of life participate in Greenbelt

Perhaps, equally important to all the opportunities to catch up with old friends and meet new ones, and if not more significant than seeing the wide variety of people who find help, grace and a sense of deep belonging through relationship with God and Jesus, are the occasions of divine ‘eruption’ that break into our ordinary lives through great speakers and artistic, musical events centred on giving worth and valuing God. For me personally, there were a number of occasions where I felt I met not just with a well crafted and intelligent, thoughtful talk, but experienced an encounter with  the Living God – the Divine power, presence and personalities that created the whole of our awe-inspiring and breathtaking universe.   

At 9am on saturday morning, bleary eyed and un-caffienated I managed to drag myself from my tent to find an unoccupied space of green grass in the  Big Top to listen to the harmonious vocals and melodic acoustic guitars of Andy Flanagan and friends leading singing and worship of God.   

I wonder if someone who isn’t a Christian, or a believer in some kind of God, can understand the special moments that take place when beautiful, aesthetically pleasing music combines with an internal knowledge and realisation that you are singing not just into the air and expressing the deep-seated feelings and aspirations of one’s soul, but also communicating – intimately, gently, in a kind of perfect child-like innocence with a Divine Presence that is Love. I know from before I was a Christian that good music and art can bring people to such emotional heights as an artist expresses great truth or beauty in an aesthetic medium that does not bypass reason, but transcends it a brings a person into the realm of the sublime. But somehow…true worship…good worship is MORE than this. It is all of the above, yet it is also unadulterated, raw communication with the Holy teased out and enwrapped in the tenderest perfect love. One experiences not just the deep-seated longing and desires for a true and just and forgiving life and universe. One experiences, a simple, quiet, gentle voice whispering love songs back to you. Affirming in the deepest most emotionally tangible way and yet physically and visibly illusive a voice saying, “Yes, you are loved. All of you. Even with those parts of you that you feel you cannot show the rest of the world – you are loved…and yes, those hopes you had as a child to be a princess in a happy ending fairy tale or those dreams you longed to fulfil to be a knight in shinning armour defeating the enemies of justice and oppressors of the poor, and rescuing the beautiful damsel in distress….They were NOT fantasy. They were REAL. They were You and they were Me trying to teach you…help you to understand your role in all of this in language and images you – a child – could understand. I AFFIRM your desires for love, for justice, for peace, for acceptance, for forgiveness. I AFFIRM YOU, whatever the world or church or christians or priests or ministers or congregations think of you. I…GOD…affirm YOU. YOU ARE LOVED.”   

It’s difficult to explain, but that’s how worship can feel – like a beautiful, intimate, tender dialogue – simplified perhaps as God saying: “You are loved.”   

I had that experience participating in the worship on saturday morning as Andy Flanagan, a small group of musicians and a talented young actress brought together a superb musical and dramatised journey through the story of Mary of Bethany’s love of Jesus, loss of her brother Lazarus and gratitude to Jesus for bringing him back to life. A very touching experience.   

Vibrant colours and flags flowing in the wind of the Spirit represent the variety of humanity and the movement of God's Spirit at Greenbelt

Mark Yaconelli – Our Desires, the Prodigal Son and a God of Compassion

Listening to mature and wise writers and speakers like Richard Rohr, Simon Parke and Lawrence Freeman speak on matters from the importance of holistic worldview to the tortured lives of mystical geniuses such as Van Gogh, Leo Tolstoy and Meister Eckart or on how to practise contemplative prayer were among the highlights of this year’s festival for me. However, the great spiritual breakthroughs for me this weekend came hearing North American author and youth specialist Mark Yaconelli speak on the true nature of our ‘desires’ and on the nature of God in Jesus of Nazareth as a God of weakness and vulnerability, rather than conceived of as an abstract all-powerful, all-controlling and dictatorial Deity ‘up’ in heaven.   

  

 I have never heard Mark speak before, yet listening to him this weekend communicate so passionately and inspirationally the Love of God for human beings – all people – represented for me, two of the highlights of my religious journey and human life. Some of the ideas I had encountered before, yet others were original and new to me. However, what struck me in particular was the bringing together of the ideas with moving real life, true stories. One idea that I had never met before was the notion that the Father in the Prodigal Son story approves generously of the prodigal son’s ‘desire’ to escape the Father’s House and find himself/express himself in the world. I had always thought that the Father (and therefore by implication God) only reluctantly and regretfully releases his younger child into the big, open world. Mark turned this action of releasing around, into a Father who longs to see his child venture out, experiment and express their desires for creativity and self-fulfilment in the wider world. For me this was a new and poignant revelation, made all the more moving by the personal testimonies Mark told which made us laugh out loud and quietly cry at the irony of the passions of adolescent and young people’s desires managing to find expression in spite of the stifling repression in traditional and conservative religion. Thanks Mark, for all your patient work with young people and for not losing hope in a God who is vulnerable and weak, a God who rejoices, not resents when people discover their true desires in their hearts and have the courage to live them out. Thanks also for believing in the God who can redeem and heal all of us. Both those people, like the Prodigal, who are themselves wounded and living in an injured world fall into the trap of abusing their desires and hurting others in the process AND those who out of a desire to do the right thing bury their feelings and passions and end up trapped in dutiful lives, feeling unappreciated and unloved by parental figures and God and feel resentful toward their wasteful and self-indulgent peers.   

Mark Yaconelli’s talks can be bought and downloaded from the Greenbelt website.  

  

More flags at Greenbelt, Bank Holiday Weekend August 2010

 

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Cold Desert – raw, lonely, pure, beautiful

May 6, 2010

Cold Desert lyrics
Songwriters: Followill, Caleb; Followill, Jared; Followill, Matthew; Followill, Nathan;

I’m on the corner waiting for a light to come on
That’s when I know that you’re alone
It’s cold in the desert, water never sees the ground
Special unspoken without sound

Told me you love me, that I’d never die alone
Hand over your heart, let’s go home
Everyone noticed, everyone has seen the signs
I’ve always been known to cross lines

I never ever cried when I was feeling down
I’ve always been scared of the sound
Jesus don’t love me, no one ever carried my load
I’m too young to feel this old

Here’s to you, here’s to me
On to us, nobody knows
Nobody sees, nobody but me

Just listening to the Kings of Leon album Only By the Night on the CD player in the car. I love this album, which I would rate as one of my all time favourites. The whole album has a dark, moody and raw emotional feel to it. It’s the kind of new postmodern rock  that just permeates your skin and bones and seems to speak directly to your heart, only after it has reached the black inner chamber of your secret emotions does it resurface to enter your mind and stimulate ones thoughts and imagination. There are loads of good songs on the album, including Sex on fire, Use Somebody, Crawl, Revelry, Be Somebody and the final track on the album is the one I have quoted and tagged above Cold Desert.

 

I don’t know what the artists mean – the song writers and musicians – at least not specifically regarding the details of the events and lives that inspired the creation of this beautiful and haunting piece of music. For me it’s just one of those songs that catches me unawares when it comes on the CD player in the car. It works like a ‘magic’ key that opens the door to my soul for a few moments. Like a charm, the song opens up the dark recesses of my heart and says to my hidden emotions – “You may be unwelcome in the light and that’s why you have been shut away in the darkness, but right now…you are part of something larger, more humane. You are a amongst a kind of community, where the pain, anguish, confusion, disillusionment, abandonment and grief are all welcome to come out the cellar and feel the warmth of shared human love and lament, as expressed through music.”

Yeah, thanks, that’s how I feel sometimes. Bless you.

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The Power of Less – Blogging, living and monasticism

May 6, 2010

I have recently spent a lot of time considering what I want to do with my life and perhaps, more importantly how I should go about it. One of the recent developments in my life that has inspired and encouraged me to find work in this field has been writing this blog. I have always enjoyed communicating in general and writing specifically. It’s also something where people at different times in my life have told me that I have a knack for using words. It’s pretty fortunate that I have this ‘knack’ as my other skills can often seem somewhat limited!

Yet writing my blog has become a challenge in itself. Attempting to write interesting, thought-provoking, useful and stimulating posts sometimes comes naturally, but at other times it feels like a punishing drag – each letter of each word being engraved seemingly individually into the granite hard ether of web space – destined (possibly!)to be ignored or at best casually flipped upon and quickly dismissed.  Moreover, this sense of being gunged up as a writer can feel seemingly exagerated by the lack of  verbal response from readers.  Even a short, but heartfelt and relevant comment can make a big difference to an aspiring writer!

Still the greatest challenges I feel are inward, not external ones. One dissident of the former Romanian Communist regime, who had suffered many years of incarceration in prison and persecution during the brutal years of Communist rule, was once asked shortly before his death, with respect to his difficult life experiences whether he had any enemies? To which he replied, ” No, I don’t. I have no enemies…only myself.”

This insight seems as true about the writing life as it is about the spiritual pilgrimmage…our greatest and most persistent adversary is usually our self.

File:Russian Orthodox Monastery in Hebron.jpg

Abraham's Oak Russian Holy Trinity Monastery (Photo courtesy of CopperKettle licensed under Wikimedia Creative Commons)

One of the themes of Dark Nights White Soul that keeps cropping up in my thinking, feeling and writing is the simplicity of the contemplative and monastic life. I feel increasingly drawn, not to sexual celibacy, but to the quietude and purity of this spiritual tradition. It offers, perhaps especially to post-modern people soaked in a hyper technological world, an existence that provides firm, yet flexible, natural boundaries. Monasticism offers limitations not as obstacles to pleasure, but as the real pathway to true happiness, personal peace and joy. Such simple and ‘holy’ practices encourage me to make important choices today about what I will do with my life, both in the macroscopic ideals of my career and vocation in the future, but also to the microscopic details of practical, everyday living in the present.

I lay down this evening to read and pray feeling frustrated and burdened by the multiplicity of tasks I have made myself and my lack of concrete progress in achieving any one of them. As I lay quietly in my room reflecting a book came to mind that I picked up a few months ago from Waterstones called  The Power of Less – The 6 Essential Productivity Principles that will change your life by Leo Babauta.

I’m just going to quote a couple of lines from his opening introductory chapter:

‘…the simplicity I seek in my life is simplicity in what I do.

Do less, not more, but achieve more because of the choices I make.

Simplicity boils down to two steps:

  1. Identify the essential.
  2. Eliminate the rest.’

The Power of Less, Leo Babauta, page IX

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Spiritual Temperaments: Contemplative (8of9)

May 2, 2010

 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42 (NIV)

 

Contemplatives follow in this ancient tradition of spending time at the ‘feet of God’ (so to speak) listening to the whispers and intimations of the voice of divine wisdom. In the story from the Gospel of Luke quoted above, the two sisters of Mary and Martha are contrasted in their responses to the presence of Jesus in their home. One sister, Martha, takes on the typical role of Jewish matriarch and hostess energetically using her time to prepare a meal for her honoured guest – the teacher and rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, who, according to the gospel accounts of his life, had become something of a prominent celebrity in their region of Israel at that time.

 The other sister, Mary, takes upon herself not the role of hostess, but that of devotee or disciple. She sits at the teacher’s feet, perhaps gazing into his face, listening to his words. As I understand it, Mary’s actions were quite controversial at the time as the place of sitting at a Rabbi’s feet was usually reserved only for disciples of that teacher and disciples would be men not women. Yet here in this early gospel text, the author describes a woman paying focused attention not on Jesus’ practical needs of food and drink, but to his words. Words that we might imagine could have been delivered softly, gently, seriously, thoughtfully, humourously as in intimate conversation, in contrast to Jesus’ usual preaching voice shouting out to the  gathered crowds.

This short passage illustrates in many ways the contemplative’s heartfelt desire and longing for communion with God – intimacy, relationship, time, devotion, prayer, listening. The contemplative is almost driven to put aside the business of daily life and find time and space to set aside to contemplating the wonder, and majesty, tenderness and love of the Divinity. Usually in the history of world religions the contemplative vocation has been considered a ‘high’ one. Yet, to be a contemplative is in some ways an anti-social, rejection of ordinary life. In stead it is a choice to find the insights of transcendence in solitude, quiet and inactivity (although this should not be confused with passivity, as contemplation is an active engagement with the mysteries of God and the Universe).

One famous modern writer who explored in-depth the contemplative lifestyle was Thomas Merton (31 January 1915 – 10 December 1968). His writings have been very popular with thoughtful, prayerful people from many walks of life. They can be difficult to read and somewhat densely written, but they contain many gems of insight and wisdom into the life of simplicity, prayer and social action for modern people, both women and men.  I have found a picture of Merton in colour below, dressed in simple denim clothes and posed sitting on a bare stool with the trees of his beloved forest arround him. I have also found some quotes by Merton at http://www.octanecreative.com/merton/quotes.html.

  • What do you think about Merton’s words written in the nineteen fifties and sixties do they still speak to us today?
  • Do you resonate with the place of Mary in the gospel story at the home of Martha and Mary? Or do you relate more to Martha – the diligent, active and caring  hostess?
  • It is worth noting that Jesus did not criticise Martha’s active behaviour, which of course practically helps to create a hospitable atmosphere for her no doubt hungry and thirsty guests. However, he refuses to ‘take away’ from Mary – the contemplative – what she has chosen in those precious moments of closeness with an extraordinary teacher. She chooses simple stillness, devotion and loving attention to the presence and words of a unique divine messenger. She shows herself to be a contemplative at heart.

“There is a silent self within us whose presence is disturbing precisely because it is so silent: it can’t be spoken. It has to remain silent. To articulate it, to verbalize it, is to tamper with it, and in some ways to destroy it.

Now let us frankly face the fact that our culture is one which is geared in many ways to help us evade any need to face this inner, silent self. We live in a state of constant semiattention to the sound of voices, music, traffic, or the generalized noise of what goes on around us all the time. This keeps us immersed in a flood of racket and words, a diffuse medium in which our consciousness is half diluted: we are not quite ‘thinking,’ not entirely responding, but we are more or less there. We are not fully present and not entirely absent; not fully withdrawn, yet not completely available. It cannot be said that we are really participating in anything and we may, in fact, be half conscious of our alienation and resentment. Yet we derive a certain comfort from the vague sense that we are ‘part of’ something – although we are not quite able to define what that something is – and probably wouldn’t want to define it even if we could. We just float along in the general noise. Resigned and indifferent, we share semiconsciously in the mindless mind of Muzak and radio commercials which passes for ‘reality.’”

Thomas Merton: Essential Writings

 

“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another. We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own isolated meditations. The meaning of our life is a secret that has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love. And if this love is unreal, the secret will not be found, the meaning will never reveal itself, the message will never be decoded. At best, we will receive a scrambled and partial message, one that will deceive and confuse us. We will never be fully real until we let ourselves fall in love – either with another human person or with God.” Love and Living, Thomas Merton

 

“If the salvation of society depends, in the long run, on the moral and spiritual health of individuals, the subject of contemplation becomes a vastly important one, since contemplation is one of the indications of spiritual maturity. It is closely allied to sanctity. You cannot save the world merely with a system. You cannot have peace without charity. You cannot have social order without saints, mystics, and prophets.” A Thomas Merton Reader

“What we are asked to do is to love; and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbor worthy if anything can. Indeed, that is one of the most significant things about the power of love. There is no way under the sun to make a man worthy of love except by loving him. As soon as he realizes himself loved – if he is not so weak that he can no longer bear to be loved – he will feel himself instantly becoming worthy of love. He will respond by drawing a mysterious spiritual value out of his own depths, a new identity called into being by the love that is addressed to him.”  Disputed Questions by Thomas Merton

“There must be a time of day when the man who makes plans forgets his plans, and acts as if he had no plans at all.There must be a time of day when the man who has to speak falls very silent. And his mind forms no more propositions, and he asks himself: Did they have a meaning?

There must be a time when the man of prayer goes to pray as if it were the first time in his life he had ever prayed; when the man of resolutions puts his resolutions aside as if they had all been broken, and he learns a different wisdom: distinguishing the sun from the moon, the stars from the darkness, the sea from the dry land, and the night sky from the shoulder of a hill.”  No Man is an Island